ELO were never an ‘album band’. I love them – probably too much, and yet I’d be the first to admit that their propensity for epic hits was matched, if not superseded, by their capacity for forgettable album filler. Consider it for a moment – their Greatest Hits is 4x platinum in the US, double the regional sales figures for their best-selling album; if at all, it’s the one Jeff Lynne record you (or most likely your parents) own. Now, there’s no shame in that; it’s part of their ‘Beatles-bettered’ sound, and besides, plenty of bands knocked out killer 45s in the 70s and 80s without releasing a fantastic album (think Queen, Roxy Music, Elton John etc.). This does, however, make a review of the first new ELO product in fourteen years very difficult. The legacy I keep itching to judge it against is one of incredible singles, put out over a fifteen-year period. But today, singles and radio play are surreal concepts; it’s all social media and streaming, ‘innit’. A select few continue to struggle bloody-mindedly in the face of progress (*_cough_Morrisseycough*), but the physical formats of press-ads, radio and vinyl – the mediums through which ELO thrived - are more-or-less dead. What was Jeff thinking? This is the worst possible time for ELO to rear its gorgeous orchestral head. With that in mind, let’s try now to tap into Alone In The Universe, ELO’s (*gulp*) comeback record…
Contrary to the apocalyptic tone of my intro, it’s not all bad news – only for Jeff’s sales. This record absolutely, qualitatively will not sell. There is no market for new ELO releases – young people don’t know who Jeff Lynne is, and old fans feel like I do – like there’s something missing. It’s hardly a big deal, but you’ll notice that the artist attributed to this LP is “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” and not the customary “Electric Light Orchestra”. That’s because “Jeff Lynne’s ELO” is actually a solo-project, featuring a solitary member of the original group accompanying here and there. To the casual listener then, this record is empty – the original massive line-up is just gone, and so, understandably, despite stellar production from the irrepressibly clever Lynne, his songs aren’t as… well… orchestral as they used to be.
This doesn’t mean Jeff can’t crack out an absolute classic – of the ten songs on offer, four are gob-smackingly excellent, and the rest are forgettable. But, those four songs are so good, that it makes the record worth buying. Ringing any bells here? Yes, sir – correct! It’s one big trip back to the 70s, minus the airplay. Now I don’t mind that so much; these four songs are awesome.
When I Was A Boy is a beautiful slice of pop nostalgia, with a fuzzy-ass guitar solo straight out of 1977 and a chord sequence that reminds me of something (I can’t for the life of me recall what it is). There’s a particularly spine-tingling note in the chorus, and a falsetto-note at its end – and oh, the way he changes the vocal melody on the line “Just wanna sing, ‘do you love me baby?’” – sublime. Dirty To The Bone is another would-be-classic; double-tracked vocals, jangly 12-string rhythm, distinctive chords (I’m Alive, eat your heart out). The urgency of Ain’t It A Drag recalls later ELO (Rock ‘n’ Roll Is King, So Serious) and once again, Lynne’s complex, harmonising structures have you smiling with admiration. Finally, All My Life, the slowest of this brilliant quartet, sways gaily from side to side, its chorus dropping beautifully into a minor chord halfway through. As glittering layers of heavily affected vocal harmonies shimmer behind a firey, snaking solo, you might just find yourself wondering if Jeff Lynne’s gone and written the best love-song of the year.
So you see, there’s some remarkable stuff here. That said, 40% is quite a grating success rate. I can’t help but sigh. If it were 1979, I’d have a column in Melody Maker and, upon the release of these extraordinary tracks as singles, ELO would score between 4 and 5⁄5 every time. I don’t know how many ways I can say this, so I’ll repeat myself for the benefit of the doubt – ELO are just not an album band. And right now, today, that’s less a run-of-the-mill comes-with-the-job occurrence than it used to be – instead, it’s more of an Achilles’ heel.
So on these terms, Alone In The Universe is a failure of an album. But it’s exactly what I expect from Jeff Lynne, and for what it’s worth, it gives me four brilliant songs to stick on the end of ELO’s Greatest Hits in my iTunes library. So can you complain, really?